How the heck did we get here? A history of affordable housing in Seattle

As the city reviews its current housing programs, Geoff Spelman recounts four decades of affordable housing initiatives.
Crosscut archive image.

An affordable housing development in West Seattle.

As the city reviews its current housing programs, Geoff Spelman recounts four decades of affordable housing initiatives.

Some things worked, some failed. Some opportunities were lost. Some are the envy of other progressive cities. As Crosscut thinks about affordable housing as part of its Community Idea Lab, we remember the affordable housing policies that have come before and the effects they've had.

1970:  Boeing chooses not to develop its supersonic aircraft (SST). Tens of thousands lose their jobs and vacancy rates hit 16 percent. Seattle goes into a serious funk. Even the rain puddles are depressed. People are offering you their house for free. They are actually willing to give you the key rather than see it go back to the bank.

Kurt Cobain is only three but later would later write: 

Disease covered Puget Sound

She’ll come back as fire, to burn all the liars 

And leave a blanket of ash on the ground

Is he thinking about Seattle’s housing plunge because it rhymed with grunge? Clearly not. But speaking of fires….

1970: Fires in downtown! After two multi-fatality fires in downtown single-room occupant (SRO) buildings, the Ozark fire ordinance is passed.

Preservation Seattle, an online newspaper of the nonprofit Historic Seattle, would later write:

These two tragedies, which were some of the worst in Seattle history, resulted in retroactive amendments to the fire code in 1970 and to the minimum housing code in 1972. The laws collectively became known as the Ozark Hotel Ordinances, and mandated extensive safety upgrades for most of Seattle's older hotels and apartments -- upgrades that many owners could not afford. As a result, thousands of low-cost housing units were lost, buildings were vacated, redeveloped or demolished, and the character of some of Seattle's oldest urban neighborhoods was forever changed.

Many buildings remain closed from that point onward and the housing market took a tumble: Rents for one-bedroom units fell from $141 in 1968 to $109 in 1971.

1975: Many of the buildings affected by the Ozark Ordinance are in the International District. Concern with preserving cultural identities and affordable housing sparks the creation of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority and International District Housing Alliance.

These groups start out as activist organizers, defending the district from the effects of the Kingdome, but eventually morph into non-profit housing developers. Despite a variety of financial incentives, many building owners in the ID resist the call to upgrade their buildings and the upper floors of many buildings remain empty.

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